Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2015 (week 6): a familiar character appears

Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan), and Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Aerial view of tomb G321, with pyramid, chapel and forecourt

Aerial view of tomb G321, with pyramid, chapel and forecourt

The wind howled this week, yet important and exciting new evidence continued to emerge from town and cemetery. Up on the desert escarpment, Mohamed Saad discovered our first intact burial of the season, just beside pyramid chapel G322. In a shallow pit, adjacent to the north wall of the pyramid, a child of only 1-2 years was buried. Directly underneath, a second infant was placed on a layer of large schist stones. Based on the size of the long bones and development of tooth crowns, the earlier child was likely born prematurely. Whether these burials are contemporary with the New Kingdom pyramid tomb is unknown, as neither was accompanied by grave goods. However, subsidiary burials around – or within – Egyptian funerary monuments, are found elsewhere, for example at Tombos.

Mohamed Saad documenting our first intact burial.

Mohamed Saad documenting our first intact burial.

We have just commenced excavation of the shaft of G322, but perhaps more exciting is a spread of pottery in the courtyard of the chapel. What will this tell us about funerary rituals at this tomb?

A short distance to the east, Michelle and her team are now over 6m deep in the shaft. More sandstone blocks continue to be revealed, some decorated. Most exciting, however, was the discovery of fragments from faience shabtis, found discarded in the shaft, left behind by (ancient?) looters.

Faience shabtis for the Deputy Paser

Faience shabtis for the Deputy Paser

A surface find in the first days had given us the name of an individual whose name ended in –ser. Four of the new shabtis complete the picture: it is ‘the Deputy, Paser’. A fifth shabti may have belonged to his wife. We cannot be sure this is where Paser was buried, but it now seems very likely. The most prominent Egyptian official in Upper Nubia under Ramses III, he is likely to have sought a grandiose tomb overlooking the town in which he held office. The pyramid would likely have been visible from the town, and to those approaching from the desert. A doorjamb, which seems to bear his name, was found dumped in the tomb to the east (G321). More evidence is needed to confirm whether this was his tomb.

Red pigment preserved on the legs of a horse pulling the chariot of Ramses II. West Gate, Amara West.

Red pigment preserved on the legs of a horse pulling the chariot of Ramses II. West Gate, Amara West.

Moving down into the town, we finished the data-capture for 3D modelling of the West Gate, a formal monument that proclaimed Egypt’s power over Nubia – which individuals like Paser were charged with administering. Alongside the discovery of four new inscriptions not recorded by the Egypt Exploration Society, we have been documenting remnants of colour that will help reconstruct the original appearance of this entrance into the town – the red flesh of the horses, the yellow fittings for the chariot, or the black skin of the vanquished Nubian prisoners.

Abdel-Razeq digging ancient rubbish pits beneath house D12.9

Abdel-Razeq digging ancient rubbish pits beneath house D12.9

Out in the western suburb, the completion of recording in several houses has provided us with a chance to go deeper. In three places, we are now digging under floor layers, into the thick rubbish deposits on which the suburb was built. Not all are happy about this: it means a mass of ceramics will have to be processed and studied.

Seal-impression with name of Ramses II, designated ‘beloved of Thoth’

Seal-impression with name of Ramses II, designated ‘beloved of Thoth’

In two of the sondages, dozens of seal impressions came to light – with royal names, depictions of gods and other texts, which will need careful study. The rubbish – its charcoal, phytoliths, animal bone and objects – will tell us much about life at ancient Amara West. These are the remnants of what people used, made and consumed, and then purposefully discarded.

Stone tools found in house D11.2

Stone tools found in house D11.2

In the final days of excavating house D11.2, Anna uncovered a cache of stone tools, tucked behind a specially modelled door buttress. Why were these tools being tucked out of sight? It is rare that the archaeologist encounters such a deliberate placing of objects by those who used an ancient house.

House D12.12 from our photography kite

House D12.12 from our photography kite

House D12.12, under excavation by David Fallon, has thrown up a feature so far unique at Amara West. This house featured a large main room with mastaba -bench (later divided in two), small ‘back rooms’ leading off it, and an entrance corridor with at least two ovens. The northeastern room was fitted with a staircase.

Staircase room in house D12.12, with platform

Staircase room in house D12.12, with platform

The intriguing feature is a small brick structure erected in front of the staircase. Carefully plastered, is this a form of low platform, perhaps similar to the lit clos known from contemporary Deir el-Medina? We can only speculate, as no painted decoration or cult objects have been found.

The E13.17 area team pause/pose for a photograph

The E13.17 area team pause/pose for a photograph

Archaeological fieldwork is characterised by massive accumulations of data, in both hard copy and digital form. Over recent years, we’ve seen our workers become increasingly part of the same global phenomenon. What’s App messages are exchanged between those in different parts of the other site, while selfies and group pictures are a regular occurrence during breaks in the excavating.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, Egypt Exploration Society, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2015: recycling in the New Kingdom town

Anna Garnett, Assistant Project Curator (Amara West), British Museum

Piles of sherds, awaiting sorting

Every day on site, thousands of pottery sherds are excavated from within the ancient houses at Amara West. These sherds are sorted into piles of diagnostic and non-diagnostic shapes and fabrics, but the eyes of the pottery sorting team are also finely tuned to identify ‘pottery finds’ within these huge piles – those pieces of broken vessels which were subsequently recycled for different functions. By studying such objects, we contribute to understanding the past histories of the different spaces at Amara West.

Sherd re-used as shovel

We also find ancient hand shovels or scrapers: sherds which fit nicely into the hand with one or more eroded edges. This season, several ‘shovels’ (for example that above) have been identified on the surface around the pyramids in Cemetery D – perhaps evidence of an ancient attempt at tomb robbery?

Pot-mark: rear part of a crocodile

Painted text on sherds (ostraca) and carved pictorial markings (pot marks) are always a welcome surprise for the sorting team: this season we have already discovered a small menagerie of pot marks including a gazelle-type animal and the rear end of a crocodile (above) … of which we hope to find the front end in the coming weeks!.

Sherds with pigment

Pottery sherds, when broken, also provided a durable and easily accessible material which could be used in industrial practices. Small flashes of colour within the generally homogenous brownish pile of pottery catch the eye, including red, yellow, white, black and blue, which prove that they were reused as colour palettes – used for painting rooms, objects or even pottery. This season, many pottery ‘palettes’ from house D12.8 preserve powdery pigments, helping us to paint a picture of how colourful the town must have appeared to the ancient occupants of Amara West.

And, of course, there are the counters

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, New Kingdom, objects, pottery, settlement, tools

Amara West 2015 (week 5): the practical, the unusual and the desert beyond

Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum) & Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Now the time seems to be slipping through our fingers like the loose windblown sand that shrouds the ancient buildings at Amara West, but with less than two weeks to go (in the town). We are now working across a range of very different spaces – some built for living, others for making things (and thus producing a lot of rubbish) and of course the monumentswhere the dead were commemorated and buried. And this week we moved beyond, into the desert….

Sequence of attempts to keep the sand out of house D12.8

Sequence of attempts to keep the sand out of house D12.8

Agnieszka Trambowicz has now provided some clarity as to what was happening in house D12.8. It looks increasingly like the house had a northern front door – thus far a uniquely bad idea in this windswept neighbourhood. The inhabitants soon started to try and lessen the impact of the sand, with a series of blocking walls erected outside the front door, before the door was finally sealed up and a new western entrance to the house created. Yet beneath all these phases lies a nice mudbrick pavement – we have yet to understand whether this is another outside court, or even paving in a public space between houses.

Ovens along the corridor around house D11.1

Ovens along the corridor around house D11.1

We try not to mention ovens too often, despite their ubiquity on site. Yet the end of the week saw several familiar circles of ash and ceramic emerge from the dusty brown deposits that choke the corridor surrounding house D11.1, in a row along one wall. This house is unique in having a precinct wall surrounding the house, and it now looks as is this was a place for food processing and cooking. It may seem sensible to put such activities outside the house, given the smoke and rubbish created. If unroofed, it could have been a space that filled with dust and sand very quickly – is that why most houses placed ovens inside?

Copper alloy bracelet emerging from the dirt in house D11.1

Copper alloy bracelet emerging from the dirt in house D11.1

Over in one of the side rooms, a nice copper alloy bracelet was revealed. Like a number of other objects – especially dozens of crumbly seal impressions – this will need the attention of our conservator, Maickel van Bellegem, who has just arrived from the British Museum. It also serves as a reminder of how these brick buildings, and their inhabitants, would have lived amongst brightly coloured objects but also materials (wood, textiles) which rarely survive here.

Kite photograph over northern part of walled town

Kite photograph over northern part of walled town

Over in the walled town, Johannes Auenmüller has excavated a trench that embodies the concept of Groundhog Day. Each day sees us photograph a new floor, made of hard Nile silt, running up to a narrow doorway. Frankly, they all look almost identical. We’re at 7 floors and counting now – what kind of building needed this careful and repeated refurbishment? Yet on the other side of the wall, Tom is digging through layers of industrial waste that may be related to metal production. These two spaces are very distinct, and perhaps had more defined purposes than the houses we have excavated, where many of the rooms probably acted as places for eating, sleeping, making things, housing animals …

Michelle Gamble faces recording the stonework recovered from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320

Michelle Gamble faces recording the stonework recovered from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320

Up in cemetery D, progress continued in the shafts of both pyramid tombs (we are not at the bottom after 5.6m in G320!), with stone architecture remaining the surprising focus of discovery. After the door jambs and lintel from the shaft of G321, the second tomb G320 started yielding an even higher amount of sandstone blocks. In contrast to G321, the majority of these blocks, again deriving from door frames, are undecorated. Yet two lintels bear traces of carved decoration, one showing a kneeling woman in the characteristic pose of a mourner.

Sandstone lintel from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320, with frontal depiction of a figure with wig and beard.

Sandstone lintel from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320, with frontal depiction of a figure with wig and beard.

The second lintel, which can be reconstructed from a series of fragments, bears a frontal representation, rare in pharaonic art. Depicting a face with wig and beard, with no accompanying inscriptions, the figure dominates the lintel. What does this represent, and where was it set up? In the shaft or as part of the above-ground cult chapel? Or has this lintel been brought from somewhere else?

After a few hours of surface excavation, the pyramid base of tomb G322 is already visible

After a few hours of surface excavation, the pyramid base of tomb G322 is already visible

In G321, Sofie started removing the upper layers of sandy fill from the entrance area of the central burial chamber: so far, there is only windblown sand. From next week, we are joined by NCAM inspector and bioarchaeologist Mohamed Saad, supported by the Institute for Bioarchaeology. Mohamed will excavate tomb G322, and initial surface cleaning has already revealed another T-shaped chapel combined with a pyramid base of almost similar width (4.50m). For the first time here, the tomb further features a small walled forecourt: as ever at Amara West, no two graves are alike.

This week saw the Amara West project extend out into the desert, to look at sites in the hinterland of the town and cemetery. Last year’s brief survey revealed the presence of two early 18th dynasty sites along a Nile channel some 2km north of the townsite. Anna Stevens will, next week, oversee another short season, concentrating on another site along this river channel.

Mohamed Abdelwahab walking grids of geophysical survey (fluxgate magnetometry) at site 2-R-65, in the desert north of Amara West

Mohamed Abdelwahab walking grids of geophysical survey (fluxgate magnetometry) at site 2-R-65, in the desert north of Amara West

To help us target our excavations, and to better understand the form and extent of these sites, a geophysical survey was completed this week, by Mohamed Abdelwahab Mohamed Ali, Musaab Hussein Eltoum Elkabbashi and Amar Adam Ali Ibrahim, colleagues from the Faculty of Earth Sciences and Mining of the University of Dongola (at Wadi Halfa). The survey and excavation in the desert will hopefully shed more light on what was happening in this area before the town of Amara West was created in the reign of Seti I.

Shadia lecturing at the Ernetta community club

Shadia lecturing at the Ernetta community club

The highlight of last week, however, was a lecture at the Ernetta Community Club. Over 200 people – on an island with only 180 occupied houses – turned up for a talk by Shadia Abdu Rabo and Neal Spencer, to talk about the exploration of Amara West, past and present. It’s amazing to think that despite Wallis Budge, James Henry Breasted and the Egypt Exploration Society working here between 1906 and 1950, this was probably the first time anyone in the area had seen old excavation photos, or learnt about what was found. Set beneath a warm starry sky, with a break prompted by the evening call to prayer (from the mosque next door), it was a memorable evening. Tomomi Fushiya finished off the evening by asking what the people of Ernetta wanted in terms of ongoing engagement – perhaps including talks and guided visits to the site.

Haris Mohamed, one of our workmen, has a first look at the information panels in the Amara West visitor orientation area

Haris Mohamed, one of our workmen, has a first look at the information panels in the Amara West visitor orientation area

Maickel brought more than conservation materials with him this week – he was also laden down with our Arabic-English information panels. We’ve just unpacked them, and hope to install them in the visitor orientation area next week.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, Egypt Exploration Society, funerary, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015: 1000th find registered – an age-old technology

Hilary Stewart, archaeologist

Flint arrowhead F13676

Our 1,000th registered find this year, designated F13676, is a finely worked flint arrowhead (3.9cm long) from house D11.1, excavated by Sarah Hitchens. Flint objects are some of the most interesting to register because, like other stone tools, they’re quite tactile: it’s always fun to hold them and try to figure out how they were shaped and used – usually their purpose is more obscure than this one!

Flint was not a technology just for the Neolithic: blades and tools are commonly found in the New Kingdom houses at Amara West (and other sites in the Nile Valley and beyond). Some are still sharp, such as this blade with serrated edge from house D11.2.

Flint tool F13920

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, objects

Amara West 2015 (week 3): from phytoliths to papyrus

Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan) & Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Looking back at week 3, the change of pace – and a different kind of work pattern – is striking. The opening weeks of excavation at Amara West often lead to the relatively quick unveiling of whole buildings. Once this flurry of discovery comes to an end, a mass of recording and finer work is needed, before we consider whether to dig elsewhere, or excavate underneath buildings to reveal earlier phases.

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

This week saw intensive work in coaxing of a necklace out of the deposits in the room of one house, investigating invisible traces of ancient colour, and the sampling of phytolith deposits. Phytoliths are silica casts of plant matter that have decayed or burnt – they are often invisible but can appear as a powdery white material. Philippa Ryan is now dividing her time between studying modern practises and helping our with sampling of archaeobotanical remains – phytoliths are important as they can tell us about plant leaves and stems.

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

More difficult was the surprising discovery of … papyrus! No papyri have ever been found at Amara West, though its role as an important administrative centre make it likely some would have been present. In a small space that might have been a house entrance, Agnieszka Trambowicz encountered tiny fragments. For now, we have removed a bulk of the sandy matrix in which they were found, and we await our conservator to extract the pieces. We have not seen any ink on the the fragments yet.

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

New rooms, and houses, were revealed ths week. Tomomi Fushiya and Hilary Stewart have been planning additional house architecture visible on the surface.

House D11.1: the front extension

House D11.1: the front extension

This is but the first step: the plan of D11.1 seemed clear to us from the surface cleaning last year, but excavation has now revealed details of two rooms south of the ‘porch’, added out the front of the original building. The southerly one contains two ovens: why was such an important feature not part of the original house design? Ovens also appeared in a room against the north side of house D11.2, which Anna Stevens in investigating.

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

Matt Williams revealed a small three-room house (D12.9), which narrowly missed being obliterated by large pits to its west and north. The dwelling was set off an alley, backed onto a large villa (D12.5), and was one of the last built houses in this neighbourhood. Further south, David Fallon’s excavations are beginning to make sense of building D12.12. Realising a central wall is a later addition, we may be looking at a square central room of a house, with characteristic side/back room behind. The oven is tucked in a narrow courtyard, perhaps once an alley between two buildings.

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Where next – move sideways and explore more houses, or dig deeper, under the excavated houses? We will probably not open any large new buildings, as it is unlikely we would finish excavating them within the season. Rather, some targeted excavations beneath the floors of some rooms may tell us about earlier phases of some houses, while what lies beneath will be important for understanding the early history of the area outside the walled town.

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Up in the cemetery, both chapels were fully exposed, though team G320 (led by Michelle Gamble) had to take it a bit slower due to the complicated mixture of poorly preserved walls and (ancient?) looter cuts. Despite similarities in architectural components several differences are already evident. While in the better preserved tomb G321 the rim of shaft appears plain, in G320 it is lined with schist stones embedded in mud-mortar as well as white plaster, suggesting more care taken during construction. The floors in both chapels were prepared from alluvial silt with large amounts of water used to consolidate the surface. These floors may preserve traces of organic substances or plants used in funerary rituals, and will be analysed further by Mat Dalton (micromorphology) and Phillippa (archaeobotany) – as well as the footprints of ancient builders.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

On the final day of week 2, team G321 started removing the fill in the vertical entrance shaft. As these had never been deliberately backfilled by the people using the grave, they only contain sand blown in over the millennia after their abandonment. To our delight, there are also no traces of substantial looting, often evident through bones or sherds scattered in the fill, yet. What awaits us at the bottom will become clear next week!

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

As with the site work, the house team experience moments of excitement amongst methodical work and recording. Registering finds can mean a nice scarab, or faience jewellery, but more frequently enigmatic pieces of worked clay or grindstone fragments. The ‘ceramic counters’ – which could have been used for many tasks – are found in vast quantities, and are also (to be frank), a little tedious, whether in the hand of excavator or finds registrar. This bag label sums up the prevailing attitude:

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015: necklace lost in the garden?


Manuela Lehmann, archaeologist (Freie Universität Berlin)

Excavating the necklace in house D11.1
Kate Fulcher and I combined efforts to reveal a necklace found nestled next to garden plots found beneath the side room of house D11.1. This work was best in the early morning hours, before the wind gets too strong. We cleaned the necklace and re-strung beads on new thread.

Necklace, Amara West, detail
The original thread – still in place – decays before us as we excavate. Nevertheless we managed to rescue some pieces as a sample for further analyses.

Necklace, Amara West
After removing the mudbrick rubble on top of the fragile beads, careful brushing revealed more and more stringed lines of necklace – each time we thought we were done, more would emerge. Unfortunately the wind became stronger, even blowing away beads, so we covered the area and will return next week.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2015, week 2: pyramid(s), garden plots, old fish and farming


Neal Spencer (Keeper, Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum) and Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Each breakfast is accompanied by a threat that samak qadim (‘ancient fish’) will be amongst the dishes brought to site by our workers, from houses across Ernetta. Referring to tarkin, the local speciality of preserved fish worked into a paste and then mixed with the wheat pancakes (gurassa), it is a delicacy that is, at best, an acquired taste.

The corridor around house D11.1

The corridor around house D11.1

Amara West countered with its own samak qadim, during our second week of excavations, in the shape of an intact dried out spiny fish, sitting in an ancient deposit just outside house D11.2. While identification of species will await analyses by a specialist, Manuela Lehmann’s excavations in this space are interesting for many other reasons. This is the only house that is set within a walled compound, creating an L-shaped perimeter around the house proper. For what purpose? Privacy, increased protection from the sand, or simply a place to locate messy, dirty activities?

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Excavations are ongoing, but patches of ash, a plastered basin, and some dividing walls suggest this might have been a busy space, probably not roofed. On the western side, very damaged remains of garden plots have started to appear – hinting at what lay beyond the town walls before the suburb was created. The southern part of the house continues to be excavated by Sarah Hitchens: we are now largely past the last structures inserted into the rooms, and revealing earlier floors.

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

Over in house D12.8, Matt Williams oversaw the emptying of the Big Pit. While not a favourite task for our workmen – who move between areas depending on the requirements of work each day – the pit has proved immensely instructive. While obliterating the southeastern room of the house, it clearly illustrated the sequence of house building in this corner of the suburb – D12.7, then D12.8, then D12.9 – as this neighbourhood became more densely occupied.

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

Out the front of house D12.8, Agnieszka Trambowicz revealed a large space with a stone column base at its centre. An unusually ostentatious entrance area for a house, as most dwellings here had simple open and/or unroofed spaces, often with food processing facilities.

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

A doorjamb from rubble further back in the house hints at the bursts of colour that once lifted the brown mud colour that predominates today. The arrival of Kate Fulcher is already prodcucing exciting results on colour – more on that soon! On the other side of the pit, Matt has been investigating a small 3 (or 4?) roomed house tucked off an alleyway, set against the western wall of villa D12.5. Dense layers of roof collapse in the middle room are still being investigated.

Earlier this week we posted images of Anna Stevens excavating the three-room house D11.2, built against the north wall of D11.1. A modest house, it is currently reminiscent of an archaeology textbook: roofing collapse in the first room, clean wind-blown sand in the second room (where ancient pots look like they were knocked off their stands just yesterday) and a surface of dirt and trampled sherds in the backroom. The coming weeks will hopefully hint at why the back room, in such a small house, was blocked up and plastered shut.

D12.12: a room with brick rubble - and stacked bricks

D12.12: a room with brick rubble – and stacked bricks

In the southeast part of the suburb, David Fallon is overseeing excavation of a building that continues to perplex us: a room without access from the others, another with bricks neatly stacked, and a dense concentration of dung-like material in one corner.

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Amongst all these excavations, floors are revealed on an almost daily basis, in different rooms. Where there’s a floor, Mat Dalton is not far behind, recording in minute detail aspects of the surfaces before they are eroded or wind-scoured, and then taking samples for thin section laboratory analysis, which can reveal replastering episodes, different construction techniques and sometimes the presence of plants or waste matter.

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Johannes Auenmüller and Tom Lyons continue peeling back layers of ancient activity in area E13. Referring to their area as the ‘city centre’ (distinct from our suburban archaeologists!) – the nature of the architecture, and especially the continual refurbishment of spaces with extremely hard mud floors, suggests these were structures other than houses. In the western part, Tom has worked through thick deposits of ash surrounding ovens, and is turning up slag suggestive of industrial activity. The most exciting find of the week was a small clay lump bearing a stamp seal-impression. Above a depiction of pharaoh subjugating a Nubian were the cartouches of Ramses III, consistent with our working hypotheses for the dating of this phase of architecture.

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending '-ser' (F8465)

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending ‘-ser’ (F8465)

The first week of cemetery excavations produced a flurry of excitement. Two substantial funerary structures were partly exposed, larger than any others found at Amara West so far. Michelle Gamble is working in tomb G320, a somewhat difficult undertaking, as the walls of the superstructure are heavily deflated, reduced to only traces of bricks. In addition, several robber cuts indicate heavy looting. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the structure, and its location, hint at the burial of someone of importance. The base of a faience shabti was recovered from the disturbed spoil around the destroyed tomb, bearing a name ending ‘-ser’. Given a Deputy of Kush named Pa-ser is known from inscriptions in the town, some Egyptological speculation as to who was buried here has been inevitable here in the dig house!

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

Immediately to the west, Michaela and Sofie Schiodt have already exposed the remarkably well preserved superstructure of G321, With a T-shaped funerary chapel and a large pyramid with a side length of 8m. It is the only one of its kind at Amara West, yet parallels similar structures at other New Kingdom Nubian sites such as Tombos, Soleb and Aniba. Over the next week we will start working on the interior of the chapel and excavate the shaft. A complete vessel deposited in the western corner suggests an intact chapel floor: offering potential for insights into the funerary rituals once performed here.

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Alongside Tomomi’s work with the local community, Katherine Homewood and Philippa Ryan commenced work this week, to explore plant subsistence strategies in Ernetta and the surrounding area. The last few days have been taken up with meeting farmers, studying plants being grown on different types of land, such as that inundated by the river or the areas of higher, artificially irrigated, ground. Another stream of research is around the crops grown for market or for domestic consumption.

Back at the house, Hilary Stewart has completed registration of the 2014 finds, and is deeply ensconced in grindstones, quartz lumps (and the odd fertility figurine) from this season’s excavations. Alice Salvador is drawing pottery from tomb G244 and illustrating new finds, while Shadia Abdu Rabo is working on the small fired clay objects we think are associated with fishing. Meanwhile, Anna Garnett and Siobhann Shinn are usually to be found amongst sacks of pottery …

It became hot this week, with little wind. The swarms of nimiti-flies have not really arrived, but reports from our colleagues on other excavation projects upstream in Sai and Sedienga suggest trouble is imminent…

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, funerary, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2015 (week 1): painted bone, a house revealed and … ovens


Neal Spencer, Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

A long seven-day excavation week has just drawn to a close at Amara West, characterised by strong winds and very chilly temperatures. The first week of a field season is really about getting a feel for the work, even after 6 years at the same site: both the team of specialists and our local workmen feature a mixture of veterans (no matter their age) and new arrivals.

The pace of work differs across Amara West, depending on the archaeological remains, but also their position on the site, which effects how much wind and airborne sand we have to deal with – both during excavation, and when returning the day after a windy night to find rooms filled with sand.

Excavating in house D12.8

Excavating in house D12.8

Within a few days, we started to understand more about house D12.8, through the excavations of Matt Williams and Agnieszka Trambowicz. It is now clear that the rooms to the west, which I had designated part of another house, represent an extension to the original house. Matt has exposed much of the rear suite of rooms: a typical almost-square space with mastaba-bench on the rear wall, flanked by side rooms (one obliterated by a big pit), with a wide room before it. The square room yielded the jar with the animal depiction. Out front, Agnieszka has encountered a series of later walls and blockings within a large space (courtyard?), and is just starting to dig a room full of ash, containing at least two ovens.

An enigmatic feature in house D11.1. Note the well-preserved surface, but also the gap, not big enougt to walk through.

An enigmatic feature in house D11.1. Note the well-preserved surface, but also the gap, not big enougt to walk through.

To the southwest, the large house D11.1 seemed fairly typical in plan, from what was visible on the surface. What surprised us here was encountering installations, rather than rubble and wind-blown sand, so close to the surface in each rooms, without the usual layers of windblown sand. This is proving challenging as the wind scours any surface we expose. At the front (south) of the building, Sarah Hitchens has exposed ashy surfaces (more ovens on the way?!) with the room behind hosting a strange curving feature, with a nice surface inside and around it, against one wall.

Manuela lifting the painted bone object

Manuela lifting the painted bone object

Manuela Lehmann has been excavating the back of the house – again with a square room accompanied by two side rooms. There’s absolutely no sign of a mastaba here, but that absence was made up for by our most unusual object of the season so far. A piece of bone, presumed to be animal, decorated on the upper surface with a series of fine red lines. Thanks to some long-distance advice from British Museum conservator Philip Kevin, we managed to consolidate this incredibly fragile piece in situ, and lift the object whole. It now sits in the expedition house awaiting cleaning by another British Museum conservator, Maickel van Bellegem, who joins us in February. Only then can we start to document and study the object properly, and thereafter try and understand it.

A small oven set in the corner of an alley outside house D12.12

There’s much more going on in the western suburb. David Fallon is working through rubble layers in a building (D12.12) south of the house he excavated last year, while revealing a small oven set up in an alleyway between the two houses. Mat Dalton is back in house D12.7, where the small suite of two rooms with ovens has turned out to contain yet more, earlier, ovens. Again we are able to track small changes and refurbishments made in individual houses.

Fouad Ali Gindi, one of our veteran workers (and oven specialist) in house D12.7

Fouad Ali Gindi, one of our veteran workers (and oven specialist), in house D12.7

Back inside the walled town, we are seeking to finish excavations in neighbourhood E13. We’re not excavating houses here, but rather an area given over to ovens and/or kilns, perhaps a courtyard.

A sequence of kilns or ovens in a courtyard inside the walled town

A sequence of kilns or ovens in a courtyard inside the walled town

Tom Lyons has been busy excavating, recording and dismantling one sequence of ovens, while Johannes Auenmüller finished the week revealing a nice layer of architecture. In both areas we hope to reach the earliest occupation phase at Amara West, to better understand what was deemed necessary in the foundation of a new pharaonic administrative centre in Upper Nubia.

Early phase architecture within area E13

Early phase architecture within area E13

Back in the expedition house, we’re focusing on documenting objects from earlier seasons – there’s always a backlog – but new artefacts are beginning to come in. But perhaps the most thrilling part of the first week has been the enthusiasm for the Arabic edition of the Amara West book, which we are distributing to local communities, starting with our workmen and neighbours.

Early evening reading the Amara West book on the mastaba outside an Ernetta island house

Early evening reading the Amara West book on the mastaba outside an Ernetta island house

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2014: burial chambers in G244

Excavating Amara West burial chambers

Sofie Schiodt, University of Copenhagen

Sophie and conservator Maickel van Bellegem in G244

Sophie and conservator Maickel van Bellegem in G244

My very first time in Sudan has taught me that things here are always miya miya (“100, 100” meaning “GREAT!”), that you can fit any number of people onto a small boat crowded by excavation gear, and that Nutella can cause a lot of excitement among archaeologists – all valuable life lessons.

I finished my first season at Amara West a few weeks ago, and looking back, I completed excavation of two chambers in tomb G244 of Cemetery C: the far western chamber and the northwestern one. The far western chamber yielded little other than a few disturbed bones.

The northwestern chamber of G244 before excavation

The northwestern chamber of G244 before excavation

However, the northwestern chamber – though also disturbed – revealed many interesting finds, including a copper alloy object, which is quite a puzzle to us! It has a hollow shaft with an upper part shaped like two curved horns – we have speculated that it may have been a scepter of some. We are open to suggestions!

Sofie revealing Copper alloy object F9391

Sofie revealing Copper alloy object F9391

As in the far western chamber, nearly all the bones were lying disarticulated and co-mingled, having been disturbed by ancient looters. Despite the disturbance, the southeastern part of the chamber revealed the top of an anthropoid coffin, with the surviving wood and painted plaster clearly showing the curved outline of the coffin head.

Copper alloy object from G244 (F9391)

Copper alloy object from G244 (F9391)

Between the excitement of excavating in the mornings and processing finds during the afternoon, we fitted in visits to Soleb, Sedeinga, Sai, and explored the island of Ernetta (I learned the island has a thriving goat population). Thursdays were the time for shisha-pipes and cold drinks in Abri. Quite an experience for a first visit to Sudan and Amara West!

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #AmaraWest

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Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2014: D12.6 – revealing a house room-by-room

Left behind in an ancient house...

David Fallon, archaeologist

My first three weeks at Amara West have come to a close and with them a very eventful two weeks in house D12.6.

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

It all began with the definition of the walls of an entire neighbourhood lost to the desert for millennia, stretching west from the villas excavated in 2009 and 2013. Though conforming, on the whole, to the detailed picture provided by an earlier magnetometry survey undertaken by Sophie Hay and a team from the British School at Rome/University of Southampton, the clearance allowed detailed planning and a better understanding of the buildings. One suite of rooms could be interpreted as a self-contained house, with a room leading off from the main entrance, beyond which lay a central room from which all other rooms could be accessed.

D12 fisheye (11)

It was this building – D12.6 – which I began to investigate at the beginning of my second week at Amara West. The familiarity provided by the wall plan of D12.6 was soon to dissolve like the morning haze over the Nile. Removal of the thin layer of rubble and windblown sand that covered the site revealed the tops of two rectangular clay built storage bins set at an angle to the walls, and at unusual locations in the corners of the their respective rooms. Whilst intriguing this discovery was only a taste of what was to come in the following days.

D12 work (3)

Having numbered the rooms one to five I decided to start at the back (room 1) and progress towards the centre of the building and thence into the side rooms. Already on my first day of full excavation, an intact ‘beer jar’ was found. In 27 years of excavation – from a sewage farm in Kent to Turkmenistan, Qatar, Afghanistan and St. Lucia – I had never encountered a complete pot! Even at Amara West, only three whole vessels were found in the town last season.

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 1 was quickly completed with a build-up of debris providing an activity horizon and proving that this rearmost room had not been cleared out before abandonment. The central room (2) was next. With the workmen, I again removed the latest deposits of collapsed wall and the ubiquitous sand: three further near complete vessels were found, this time shallow bowls typical of the late Ramesside period. As mystifying as the pottery is exciting was the lack of a mastaba-bench, typically located in such houses opposite the doorway into the room. Impressions of matting in some of the fragments of collapsed mud indicate that the main room had been roofed.

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Unlike the other four rooms, room 5 did not have any collapsed clay or mud bricks visible on the surface. On my fifth day of excavating an Egyptian-style house, the sand started to reveal a fascinating assemblage. First, a fragment of pottery protruded from the sand, which proved to be a large intact Nubian cooking pot. This sat next to quern stones, two hammer-stones, and a large Ramesside storage jar. Another storage jar emerged the next day.

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

What would the next week bring? I moved into room 4, at the southeastern corner of the house. Again roofed, possibly with a vault (distinctive vaulting bricks were encountered), the big surprise was a mud architectural fragment bearing remains of stamp impressions. These took the form of large cartouche-shapes … the Egyptologists on our team remain perplexed by the signs!

Four 3200-year old rooms, ten days, five complete pots sitting on ancient floors and an as-yet untranslated “cartouche”. Many years ago, as a child, I was looking at picture books of Egypt; I have now been privileged enough to bring to light part of an ancient house from that very culture.

I have now turned towards the main entrance room – hints of a grinding emplacement are visible, and a the lower flight of a staircase is clear. Superb impressions of finely woven matting, again from roofing, have started to emerge. No ovens, though!

Many questions have been asked in my first two weeks digging at Amara West, and my excavations are prompting more questions. Only one way to seek answers to those questions …

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #AmaraWest

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, tools

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